The third party fever dream, revisited

Five points for reporters to consider about third party prospects

National Journal’s Ron Fournier has posted a gracious reply to my CJR column challenging what I considered to be his excessively optimistic estimates of the likelihood of a successful third party or serious third party presidential contender. I’m very encouraged by the exchange that we’ve had, which reflects the possibilities for engagement and collaboration between journalism and political science. In this case, political science research has a different perspective than the operatives and professionals, as Fournier notes. What seems to be party weakness may actually reflect the ongoing change from a hierarchical party structure to what has been called the “extended party network”:

There is a difference of opinion between political scientists and political professionals. In the last six weeks, four members of Congress, three GOP consultants, five Democratic consultants and two CEOs have told me they think we will see one or both major parties either transformed or weakened by challenges from outside the establishment. “There’s a revolution starting,” said Mark McKinnon, former consultant to President George W. Bush and co-founder of “No Labels,” a bipartisan group that some view as a stalking horse for an independent political movement.

On the other hand, Nyhan subscribes to a school of thought—popular among professors of political science and government—that parties are evolving rather the declining. The hierarchical, centralized model that worked in the 19th and 20th century is giving way to a network of affiliated interest groups, PACs and constituencies loosely organized around a dominant brand and set of policies, Nyhan told me in a telephone interview Monday. Under this theory, the modern political party includes partisan blogs and media organizations.

This could explain why so many political professionals are willing to pontificate about a potential third party: Individually, they are losing influence as the parties decentralize and their reaction is to assume the worst for the entire system.

(For more on the extended party network, see these articles by Gregory Koger, Seth Masket, and Hans Noel as well as my research with Jacob Montgomery on the role of political consultants in diffusing campaign tactics among candidates within the parties.)

Let me add five additional points that I think journalists should consider in assessing the prospects for successful third party challenges:

1. Parties adapt to insurgents and challengers. Ross Perot pushed the two major parties to talk about the deficit. Howard Dean helped inspire Democratic officeholders and candidates to take a more combative approach to George W. Bush. To the extent that there is demand for policy change or attention to new issues, the parties will typically move quickly and nimbly to satisfy it.

2. What’s the issue? The one exception to the above rule is when a highly salient issue divides the parties internally. The divide over slavery helped the Republican Party supplant the Whigs in the mid-19th century—the last time a third party replaced one of the two major parties. Race also divided the Democratic Party during the Jim Crow era, leading to third party challenges from Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968. No comparable issue exists today.

3. It’s easier to take over parties than challenge them—and more effective too! Parties are created by and serve the interests of elected officeholders, activists, and donors. As the composition of those groups changes, the parties change with them. Political movements tend to quickly realize that it’s more effective to take over an existing party (as in the case of conservatives in the GOP) than to try to start a third party. Unlike the old-guard corporations whose business models have been disrupted by the rise of the Internet, the parties have an incredibly valuable set of legacy assets—millions of loyal voters, a party brand and platform, and a set of affiliated officeholders, activists, donors, and interest groups, along with ballot access and electoral rules that give them huge advantages over upstart competitors.

4. The role of the Internet isn’t clear. Growing up amidst the techno-utopianism of dot-com era Silicon Valley has made me suspicious of all arguments of the form “The Internet -> ??? -> Political revolution!” In this case, it’s not clear to me that the Internet is as disruptive a force as Fournier implies. While it could help challengers organize, it also facilitates the flow of small-donor donations to the major parties and rewards scale in building the computational infrastructure of cutting-edge campaigns.

5. A weak economy makes institutions seem like they’re not working. As the political scientist James Stimson has shown, trust in government and approval of all the major institutions of government tends to track with the state of the economy. It shouldn’t be surprising that people are dissatisfied with the parties, but we should expect that dissatisfaction to dissipate if and when the economy improves. The same thing happened in the 1990s—as the economy improved during President Clinton’s time in office, the Reform Party fizzled.

Again, we don’t know what will happen, but I wouldn’t bet against the parties—and journalists shouldn’t either without more evidence to the contrary.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , ,